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MISS CONGENIALITY 2: ARMED AND FABULOUS (PG-13) Workmanlike writing and direction are the best things you can say about this sequel in which agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock), now a big media celebrity doing PR for the FBI, gets pulled back into active duty when her pal, Miss USA, is kidnapped. There's a female buddy movie angle here too - with Regina King on hand as the antagonistic bodyguard with whom Bullock will inevitably bond - and a couple of forgettable sidekicks, including a clueless male agent and Bullock's mincing Queer Eye for the FBI Agent stylist. The film juggles its various elements, mixing a little bit of comedy with a little bit of action, but not much happens and it's all equally predictable and bland. A virtual cameo by William Shatner breathes momentary life into the proceedings, but the rest is numbingly dull and listless, right down to the obligatory outtakes over the closing credits. Also stars Treat Williams, Ernie Hudson, Enrique Murciano and Diedrich Bader.
OFF THE MAP (PG-13) Off the Map is one of those movies that critics like to describe as a "small gem," and that's exactly what it is. The film takes the shape of a memory piece, a reeling-in of the years by a grown woman inviting us along as she revisits her childhood in the wilds of New Mexico, circa 1974. In the most broadly described sense, this is a coming-of-age tale - almost inevitably so, since our 12-year-old guide, Bo Groden (Valentina de Angelis), is at an age when new discoveries wait around every corner - but Off the Map is also much more: a grown-up romance, a mystical adventure, a cheerfully dysfunctional comedy, a wistful family drama. There's not a story per se so much as a series of anecdotes, an accumulation of tiny but telling details that gradually flesh out the characters and allow us to enter their world to a degree not commonly allowed for in most motion pictures. Joan Allen delivers yet another astonishing performance as the eccentric earth mama holding the Groden family together, and the character of Bo is as memorably self-possessed and old-beyond-her-years as the young protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, another movie that filtered its world to fine effect through the eyes of childhood. Off the Map makes us genuinely happy to spend time with its characters - people who, as the title implies, make contact with the world in new ways, entering it and departing through nexus points rarely noticed - and that's something worth celebrating. Also stars Sam Elliot, J.K. Simmons and Jim True-Frost. Currently playing at Sunrise Cinemas in Tampa.
OSCAR SHORTS 2005 (NR) Shorter doesn't necessarily mean lighter and fluffier in this program of short films that were nominated for Academy Awards in 2005. Wasp, the UK short that wound up taking home the Oscar, is a blistering, unblinking life-slice that tells us more than we might have wanted to know about a young, unmarried mom saddled with too many kids and not enough ideas or options. Another rough 'n' tumble work, the brilliantly imagined Canadian animation Ryan, puts us up close and personal with a once-important artist now reduced to alcoholic dementia. The films get a bit sunnier from there - The New Zealand short Two Cars, One Night is a tender glimpse of young kids getting acquainted in a parking lot, while the homegrown animations Gopher Broke and Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher are both thoroughly silly and entirely suitable for kiddies - but there's generally a dark undercurrent shooting through most of this material that helps keep things interesting. One film, 7:35 in the Morning from Spain, even turns a suicidal stalker's desperation into an all-singing, all-dancing musical. 1/2